They say a good host always makes the guests feel welcome, but sometimes the host needs a hand to feel comfortable in their own home.
Eighteen or 19 summers ago, the Bible study that Brian Tarantino hosted in his living room had morphed into a dinner club. Rather than studying the book of Philippians — it is a rule that home Bible studies always must focus on the book of Philippians; unless they’re on a gospel, in which case it has to be the gospel of Mark — every Tuesday night people from our church in North Brunswick would travel to Hillsborough and have dinner with Brian, his wife, and a dozen or so other people from the church.
It was informal, it was friendly, and it helped people at a rapidly changing church connect with one another over a meal. Never mind the sermons that no one else was paying attention to either, who are these strange ducks in the next row of folding chairs? This is Charlotte. She works in customer service at a car dealership, which is why she’s not allowed to talk with customers who come to the car dealership where she works. Over here is Katherine. She has a gift for finding the one thing about an 11-year-old boy that most differentiates him from his peers,and then loudly focusing on that unique trait for 15 minutes until everybody else in earshot and outside it, is staring at the poor boy like he’s a living specimen in a butterfly collection, pinned through delicate wings to an unforgiving background while with all his mind he is willing himself back to being a caterpillar so he can crawl away. And in this corner is a sweet little baby whose parents inexplicably don’t want her to nod off to sleep at 6:30, even though they look like they haven’t slept in three nights
At the time I was managing editor of the Hillsborough Beacon and The Manville News, and when people learned that, inevitably they wanted to know what was going on with Route 206 (It’s around 8 o’clock; the rush-hour gridlock should loosen up in a few more hours), how redevelopment was progressing in Manville (very slowly), and is the mayor on crack (ha ha, no comment). Another popular question: Any interesting stories you’ve uncovered recently? (As a matter of fact…)
This particular week, I was enjoying the afterglow of a feature story I had uncovered while trying to show my reporter how many interesting stories there are that don’t begin with “Police arrested” or “Officials voted.” I had found and interviewed a woman who claimed her house was haunted by a malignant spirit called the Watcher. Victims would be minding their own business, when gradually the feeling would steal over them that someone was staring at them. Their skin would crawl, the hair on the backs of their neck would stand on end, and finally they would whip their heads around an annoyance, and find that there was no one there. As I explained, it was if someone had died and thought, “I can’t get into heaven, and I don’t want to go to hell. I know! I’ll sit in this lady’s basement and stare at people while they watch reruns of ‘I Love Lucy!'”
As often happens when a supposedly true ghost story gets told, others rise to the surface. It’s almost like a tennis match. Serve, and return.
“We had a situation like that in our house,” one of the dinner guests said. I glanced over at Brian.
Brian, I should note, has a remarkable poker face that lets you know exactly how on board he is with the conversation unfolding in front of him. He’s got a royal flush look that he makes when everything is going better than he dreamed; a two-pair expression when it’s solid but it could be better; and even a three-of-a-kind look when he’s generally happy but realizes things could drift into unsafe waters.
Serious talk about ghosts and otherworldly things counts as drifting into unsafe waters to Brian, especially at a dinner party that is at least ostensibly connected to church. At this moment, a careful look at Brian’s poker face would reveal that his cards were the Two of Spades, the Six of Hearts, the Old Maid, a Blue Three from Uno, a Chance Monoply card that said Take a Ride on the Reading. Also, running through his mind: “I thought we were playing poker, but then why did Valerie call Diamonds as trump? Am I supposed buy a loaf of bread, a container of milk and a stick of butter, or 20 pounds of brown sugar?”
As the dinner guest recounted curious incidents of poltergeist activity that involved objects going missing and then reappearing amid telltale disruptions of the electric lighting, it seemed to Brian that conversation had not merely drifted into unsafe waters, it had hit an iceberg. Now the lifeboats were all gone while a thousand people remained trapped below decks, and the band was playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
(Apropos of nothing, Brian is a lot of fun to play with on card night. Just make sure he’s not your partner.)
“I guess we just woke something up,” the dinner guest said. The story was concluded. In the rules of conversational tennis, it was time to return the volley with questions,or further ghost stories. Brian had the desperate look of a referee who has watched an entire set played out of bounds and who wants only to reassert court rules. Silly man, court rules don’t apply. You just need to trust the game.
“Hey guys,” he tried to interject, but it was hopeless. I swung at the ball and lobbed it smoothly across the net.
“Woke it up,” I repeated thoughtfully, and nodded. “It’s probably just as well. What was he going to do, sleep the rest of eternity? How lazy can you get?”
The guest look confused. “No, I mean –”
“Hey wake up!” Brian joined in, cajoling the imagined spirit asleep in its haunted bed. He realized that he understood the rules to the game, and there was no need to referee after all. “Are you going to sleep your whole afterlife away?”
His relief was palpable. The conversation, a minute ago unsettling and disquieting, was now on safe and familiar footing. A minute later, and it had moved on entirely and was forgotten.
Well almost. I still remember how uncomfortable he looked with the discussion and the relief he felt when I turned it all into a joke. But what could I do, after all? The poor guy was feeling uncomfortable in his own house.
It’s probably for the best that I didn’t tell him that the woman with the haunted house was his wife, and the Watcher was in his basement.